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Reid: In 2011, an international team of four astronomers were looking through telescope data when they found evidence of something unusual: a jet of matter was producing an electric current of 3 exa amps a quintillion amps! That’s about as much current as you’d find in a trillion lightning bolts. It was the largest electrical current ever discovered in space.

And this jet is shooting out of the center of a galaxy two billion light years from Earth. The galaxy is called 3C303, and it’s in the direction of the Boötes constellation, and it’s about a thousand times dimmer than Pluto is on an average day. So, it’s pretty hard to see this galaxy, but just because it’s not very bright in visible light, doesn’t mean it isn’t bright in other wavelengths of light.

3C303 was first observed back in 1981, by a series of radio telescopes in New Mexico called the Very Large Array. The team of researchers who discovered the huge electrical current used that data, plus follow-up observations taken in 2010 and 2011. They published their findings in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in October 2011.

The main thing they found was this record-breaking current, but they also discovered something else: the jet itself is huge. It’s being pushed outward at least 150,000 light years from the center of the galaxy, meaning that this jet is longer than the Milky Way, which is 100,000 light years across. A jet this powerful must be fueled by something even more powerful: the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy.

Most big, active galaxies have supermassive black holes. And lots of these supermassive black holes have huge jets of matter shooting away from them. The jets come from a thin, rotating disk around the black hole, called the accretion disk, which is made of gas, dust, and even doomed stars that got too close to the black hole. All this stuff is stuck rotating around the black hole, pulled in by its gravity. It’ll either rotate forever or eventually be sucked in and never seen again.

The matter in this disk is spun at such high speeds, and the turbulence heats it to such high temperatures, that the atoms break down into charged plasma particles. And that’s what leads to a huge electrical current in the jet. The charged particles create electric and magnetic fields, which eventually force some of this plasma into a column, and shoots it outward in the form of a jet.

These speeding charged particles create electrical current. Lots of electrical current. Of all the active galaxies with active supermassive black holes in their centers, only about 10% have been found to have jets spewing out matter. But all of these jets will have electric currents running through them.

But why is 3C303’s current so astonishingly, exceptionally, record-breakingly huge? Well, the amount of current that these jets carry is related to the strength of the black hole’s accretion disk. Some of these jets shoot out for millions of years, and others fizzle out. 3C303’s black hole jet is thought to be so electrified because its black hole accretion disk is so active that it has an unusually strong magnetic field, which creates a larger amount of electricity.

The researchers pointed out in their paper that this was a rare opportunity and the first direct measure of the strength of a large jet’s electric current. But as radio telescopes become more sensitive, we should be able to observe more bright jets like this one, plus whatever giant currents are running through them.

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